Viewer Guide: The China Syndrome and The Ides of March

January 10, 2020 | Richard Peña


The China Syndrome (1979)

This week’s classic is The China Syndrome, the 1979 dramatic thriller directed by James Bridges.

America’s simmering post-war anxiety over the safety of nuclear power reached a boiling point with this unexpectedly prescient “what if” scenario. In an Oscar-nominated performance, Jane Fonda stars in one of her best mid-career roles as Kimberly Wells, a local TV reporter whose typical “California Close-Up” assignments are usually limited to soft human interest stories like a new singing telegram service. Eager to break into real news reporting, Kimberly finds herself stymied by casual institutional sexism, with more attention paid to her hairstyle than her developing talents as a journalist. But while shooting a puff piece on the fictitious Ventana nuclear power plant with her cynical freelance cameraman Richard, played by Michael Douglas, the story of a lifetime practically explodes in her face—literally. Despite the unconvincing reassurances of the plant’s PR director, Kimberly and her crew witness an extraordinary scene of escalating panic in the Ventana control room. Surreptitiously filming the incident, Kimberly and Richard rush back to the station convinced they’ve stumbled upon the lead story for the six o’clock news… but that’s when things start to get more complicated. As a result of Richard’s rash behavior, Kimberly is forced to return to Ventana, where she encounters Jack Godell, the shift supervisor that she previously observed in the control room, portrayed in a riveting, Oscar-nominated performance by Jack Lemmon. A career-long company man, Godell initially tries to deflect Kimberly’s questioning, but soon makes an alarming discovery about the plant that forces him to take action to halt a potentially catastrophic threat.

Predictably, upon its release on March 16, 1979, The China Syndrome was attacked by the nuclear power industry as being one-sided “no-nukes” propaganda, an objection that was not entirely unfounded. Jane Fonda and her then-husband, activist Tom Hayden, were both famously opposed to nuclear power, with Fonda’s production company initially pursuing the rights to Karen Silkwood’s story before settling on The China Syndrome’s script by Mike Gray. But just twelve days after The China Syndrome’s release, the partial meltdown of a reactor at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear plant suddenly made the film’s unthinkable scenario not so unthinkable, with some circumstances of the Three Mile Island incident bearing an uncanny similarity to the fictionalized near accident dramatized in the film.

While Michael Douglas was originally only involved with the film as a producer, at the last minute he stepped into the role of Kimberly’s cameraman when negotiations with Richard Dreyfuss broke down too close to the start of filming. And in an eerie case of life imitating art, Stan Bohrman—the real TV news anchorman playing the movie’s fictional anchorman—found himself back at his day job…reporting on the real-life nuclear meltdown instead the make-believe crisis in the movie. I still remember those terrifying few days when news of Three Mile Island broke—and indeed, during that time I and thousands of others went to see The China Syndrome, to make us even more nervous, I guess! Although the health effects of the Three Mile Island accident were reportedly not as severe as originally feared, the official clean-up did not conclude until December 1993—at a total cost of $1 billion—with the too-close-for-comfort near-miss resulting in a major reduction in the construction of new nuclear power plants across the US. And in the years since Three Mile Island, the even more severe accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima have insured that the debate over nuclear energy remains as volatile as ever.


The Ides of March (2011)

This week’s indie is The Ides of March, a 2011 political drama directed by George Clooney.

Set during the Ohio Democratic primary, The Ides of March stars Ryan Gosling as Stephen Meyers, the junior campaign manager for Mike Morris, a progressive Pennsylvania Governor running for President, played by George Clooney. With his cool demeanor, shrewd instincts and ability to effortlessly multi-task under constant pressure, Meyers is a talented strategist who seems like a young man with a bright future in the business of politics. So when Meyers receives a surprise call to secretly meet with Tom Duffy, played by Paul Giamatti, the campaign manager of Governor Morris’ Democratic opponent, he instinctively knows that taking such a meeting would be strictly verboten by his boss Paul Zara, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Nevertheless, Meyers can’t stop himself from being a little curious…and maybe a little flattered. But if going forward with the meeting turns out to be Meyers’ first mistake, his second one is partaking in an office dalliance with Molly Stearns, a campaign intern played by Evan Rachel Wood, whose father also just happens to be the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. After succumbing to these temptations, it isn’t long before Meyers well-oiled political career starts coming off the rails, and leads him to make a disillusioning discovery about the “progressive” candidate for whom he’s been so tirelessly working.

Also featured in cameo roles are Marisa Tomei as a persistent New York Times reporter, Jeffrey Wright as an unsavory North Carolina Senator, and Jennifer Ehle as the Governor’s unsuspecting wife.

With the title’s nod to the notorious assassination date of Julius Caesar, as well as Shakespeare’s timeless dramatization of the Roman general’s ultimate betrayal by his own inner circle, The Ides of March was adapted by George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon from Willimon’s 2008 play Farragut North. A veteran of volunteering on various campaigns including those of Charles Schumer, Hillary Clinton and Bill Bradley, it was Willimon’s experiences working on Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid that inspired him to write his play, which he titled after the DC metro station that’s regarded as ground zero for Washington politicos of all varieties. For the role of Stephen Meyers, Leonardo DiCaprio was originally interested, and although he eventually withdrew from the film he remained involved as an executive producer. Chris Pine was also considered before Ryan Gosling was finally cast. In addition, Brad Pitt was originally planned to play campaign manager Paul Zara, but was ultimately replaced by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Carrying on a long tradition of fictional political dramas, in the years since The Ides of March’s release in 2011 it’s become hard to imagine Hollywood coming up with any new dramatized story that could top what now emerges from Washington on a daily basis. Screenwriter and Columbia grad Beau Willimon’s own career exploded in 2013 with House of Cards, the American adaptation of a British series for which Willomon served as head writer and show runner.

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